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Bulgaria doesn’t send weapons to Ukraine but arms industry flourishes

While Bulgaria and Hungary are the only NATO and EU countries that officially refuse to send military aid to Ukraine, Bulgaria was revealed to be one of the biggest indirect suppliers to the war-torn country, selling a record amount of weapons since the start of the war.

Experts estimate that Bulgaria has so far supplied at least €1 billion of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine via brokers.

The Bulgarian arms business has always profited well from conflicts in areas that traditionally used Soviet weapons systems. The country’s arms enterprises produce ammunition for Soviet weapons and other products based on them, which in most cases, are of great quality and have higher prices on international markets.

The Bulgarian arms industry now turns out to be one of the largest sources of Soviet-standard ammunition for the Ukrainian army, but this is a political problem.

In the current parliament there are three forces opposed to Bulgaria sending weapons to Ukraine: the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the openly pro-Russian party Vazrazhdane, and to a lesser degree, the party Bulgarian Rise of former caretaker prime minister Stefan Yanev.

The latter has recently accepted sending old Soviet weaponry under the condition that the country receives in exchange modern NATO weapons. In the 240-seat parliament, BSP has 25 MPs, Vazrazhdane has 27, and Bulgarian Rise, the smallest force, has 12.

Surveys show that nearly 30% of Bulgarians directly support Russia in the conflict, and half have strong pro-Russian sentiments, a remnant of the totalitarian communist regime. Furthermore, some 70% of the population believe that sending weapons puts Bulgaria directly in the conflict.

But large state-owned arms plants such as those in Sopot, Karlovo, and Kazanlak, where the plants are located, and the people working there, benefit from a 100% uptick in sales.

Alexander Mihailov, former executive director of the state company “Kintex”, through which the country’s arms exports pass, confirmed the record Bulgarian exports this year.

He gave the example of the export of Bulgarian arms production in 2016 and 2017 when there were regional military actions in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. “When there is an international armed conflict, there is always an increase in the use of defence-related products,” Mihailov told EURACTIV Bulgaria, adding that the arms export permits issued by the state during this time added up to a total of €1.1 – €1.3 billion.

In comparison, Mihailov said that, from the start of the Ukraine war until today, the arms export permits added up to over €2 billion. “So until now, we have had 100% growth compared to the peak years for the business. This year may end at 150% or even 200% sales growth compared to the strongest years of the military-industrial complex, and this generates serious income in the Bulgarian economy and the state budget in times of crisis,” Mihailov said.

The Bulgarian Economy Ministry, directly responsible for export authorisation, has told EURACTIV Bulgaria that it needs more time to provide data.

Pro-Russian sentiments

The record sales of Bulgarian weapons are an economic success that the pro-Russian political forces in the country prefer not to brag about.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, who currently rules the country through a caretaker government, called those asking for weapons to be sent to Ukraine “warmongers”.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party and the radical pro-Russian party “Vazrazhdane” are against openly sending weapons. However, none of these parties talks about the positive effect on the economy that arms exports appear to have.

This leads to the paradox of American volunteers in the foreign battalion in Ukraine praising how they neutralised Russian armoured vehicles with the exceptional Bulgarian anti-tank grenade launchers, while most Bulgarian political leaders stubbornly deny that this is happening.

At the start of the year, the Bulgarian parliament decided that the only permissible military aid for Ukraine was the repair of Ukrainian tanks in Bulgaria. Something that the authorities in Kyiv predictably did not take advantage of.

How the weapons are sold

Currently, Bulgarian arms manufacturers and dealers sell their products mainly in Poland and Romania, where the arms are then re-exported to Ukraine.

“What is clear is that export volumes to Poland have increased significantly,” said the former head of Kintex Mihailov, adding that the Rzeszów Airport in Poland, which is about 70 km from the Ukrainian border, is the central logistics hub.

“It is no coincidence that the USA installed Patriot air defence systems at this airport. For the first 120 days of the war in Ukraine, there were 60 cargo flights with weapons from Bulgarian airports to Rzeszow. The average cargo capacity is about 70-80 tons of cargo per plane,” he added.

However, the Bulgarian media have repeatedly reported on flights of Ukrainian cargo planes directly from Bulgarian airports.

“It should be clear that Bulgaria as a country, at the expense of the state budget or through the army, does not provide weapons to Ukraine, while private manufacturers and traders export large volumes of weapons to countries in Central Europe. Before the war in Ukraine, these countries were not clients of Bulgarian companies. Therefore it arises reasonably the assumption that Bulgarian manufacturers and traders export weapons to Central European countries, which are resold to Ukraine,” Mihailov says.

He added that, logistically, no one could deliver weapons directly to Ukraine at the moment because there can be no planes in its skies, and the ports are besieged by the Russian navy and mined by the Ukrainian coast guard.

“Deliveries cannot be made by air and water, and land transport remains, which passes through Poland and Romania,” Mihailov said.

“It should be noted that Russian intelligence monitors military supplies to neutralise them. Therefore, these deliveries are probably made at night, when it is more difficult to be detected by satellite surveillance, or with atypical means of transport, e.g. refrigerated trucks, to give the impression that food products are being delivered,” he added.

New suggestions

In April, former prime minister Boyko Borisov, whose party GERB won the last elections, announced he was convinced Bulgaria was exporting weapons to Ukraine.

“I am convinced that weapons are being exported to Ukraine. We are not against that; we are against the two-facedness in the parliament. After Putin’s attack in Ukraine, this is the only way to stop this,” Borisov commented on 21 April.

A week ago, political parties GERB and Democratic Bulgaria filed two separate proposals to the parliament for Bulgaria to help Ukraine with heavy weapons, including aircraft and missile systems. Bulgaria’s air force consists mainly of Soviet MiG-29s and Su-25s, which are no longer maintainable and are due to be grounded soon.

Source: Euractiv